Undergraduate Zheming Cai’s ASLA award-winning student project to reimagine the historic military site of Shute’s Folly Island off coastal South Carolina took on the twin behemoths of preservation and tourism and forged them into a refined solution that balanced the site’s architectural and landscape histories. The project, Preservation as Provocation: Redefining Tourism, won a 2013 ASLA Student Honor Award and was praised by the “very impressed” jury for its sophistication. Cai’s design of the historic fortification “broke away from the military history” and “built on other reasons to visit,” according to the comments. Now a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cai talked with us about how to use flooding as an interpretive tool for historic places, understanding the genius loci, and taking a landscape perspective on tourism.
You won the ASLA Student Honor Award for a project that was about preservation and tourism in South Carolina while you were a student at Purdue University. Can you tell us how you got interested in these two concepts and how you chose the site?
This was my senior capstone design project. The previous semester, I had taken a more architecturally oriented historic preservation course with Ken Schuette, who is also my adviser. I had focused on community, cultural heritage, and downtown areas, so that took some of my initial interest in that direction. Schuette discovered a student competition for Castle Pinckney sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. He asked me if I had any interest in doing a competition for my capstone, and I said yes, I will do it.
The reason I picked this competition was that I was reading through their brief and they had this attached image of the castle (Castle Pinckney). Lots of my undergrad research is on the genius loci, the spirit of a place, and it reminded me a lot of the picturesque Tintern Abbey kind of image, and that got me really excited. I’m a landscape architect, so I wanted to stick my hat into the ring and do this competition from a landscape perspective. I didn’t win because my project wasn’t architectural enough, which was pretty interesting.
So initially it wasn’t my intention to apply for an ASLA award, but my adviser highly recommended it. At the time, I had graduated already and I was traveling in Yellowstone with my parents, so I had to put it all together in a little cabin.
What were some of the challenges in developing this project?
I never traveled to South Carolina, and that wasn’t part of the plan for my capstone. During my research, I realized there wasn’t much access to the island, so even if I had traveled to the site there wasn’t a way to get to the island. You have to be on the island to get a comprehensive idea of it, so that was a disappointment. There wasn’t much information on the island. I couldn’t find any GIS data, and because the dredging in the area was reducing the island’s mass, and the coastline was rapidly fluctuating, the footprint was constantly changing.
Inundation is part of the plan in your project. How did you decide to bring the water in and move the visitor building outside the site?
This is kind of funny—the original competition was, after all, an architectural competition to build a [LEED certified and sustainable] structure on top of the existing site. To me that was extremely hard—I know nothing about architecture, so I decided to have the building on a barge, a floating structure that’s easier to maintain. That way, if there is a hurricane they can just drag it out of the harbor. And a comfort station—I don’t know how to deal with that, so that’s on the barge as well! The way I approached the project was to do minimal impact on the site and emphasize the cultural and not the architectural.
One of the things I liked about your project is that it really allows the physical experience of space and the landscape to do the heavy lifting of interpretation, rather than using a lot of interpretive signage and tech wizardry.
The subtitle is Redefining Tourism. To me, the problem is that everything is so well designed that everyone’s experience is so well done, thematic, and curated. People have less personal attachment to the place. You visit a site you don’t really remember unless you see certain pictures. For me, the idea is more not to give you a certain experience, but that as an individual you are in charge of the experience.
During my undergraduate time, I was interested in humanist geography, specifically Yi-Fu Tuan’s books about a sense of place, a sense of time, and I really enjoyed Segmented Worlds and Self: A Study of Group Life and Individual Consciousness. Some of my intention in this project was to provoke the individual to have a personal experience at the site. I feel like people are able to discover more in the details because they are curious.
More preservation for you?
I don’t know yet if this is my career path, but I’m taking History of Cultural Landscapes with Mark Laird, who is a really amazing historian, and I’m taking a visual representation class on landscape and atmosphere. I’m also taking urban planning and construct materiality, so I’m just taking everything I’m interested in. I’m just really excited to be at the GSD.